The Commonwealth commits itself to ‘peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media’ in the Commonwealth Charter. Hand in hand with freedom of the media is open civic space. Upholding these values is the Commonwealth’s aspiration, but how is it doing in practice? Is the Commonwealth a place of free discussion and public engagement in political activities, the bedrock of democratic culture and a means of ensuring accountability? Or do we find the space for public debate closed, with charities, community groups and unions restricted in their operations and journalists harassed and intimidated?
Two new studies shed light on how the Commonwealth compares globally on freedom of the press and civic space. Recently released rankings from Reporters Without Borders and Civicus, the global civil society alliance, use a number of measures to rank countries based on freedom of the press and the openness of ‘civic space’. These indexes show that compared to global averages, the Commonwealth treads a middle line. No one Commonwealth member has fallen to the bottom categories of these rankings in terms of the repression of these key Commonwealth values. However, the proportion of Commonwealth countries ranked as the most open and with the highest degree of press freedom is lower than the proportion of countries across the world. Clearly, the Commonwealth has more to do to reach its own desired standards of democracy.
Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index indicates a distinct Commonwealth trend; 12% of countries from across the globe are classified as having the worst level of repression of the press (‘very bad’), but no Commonwealth countries meet this threshold. This suggests that the most egregious examples of curtailing the freedom of the press are not found in the Commonwealth. However, the Commonwealth is not exactly a shining example of press freedom either. At the top end of the scale, only Jamaica and New Zealand (5% Commonwealth countries included in the index) are considered to have a ‘good’ level of press freedom, compared to 9% worldwide. Worryingly, New Zealand’s rank slipped by eight places compared to 2015. Overall, Commonwealth countries are relatively close to the average on press freedom, not the worst perpetrators of restricting media freedoms but a group that still has improvements to make.
A similar picture emerges in rankings of 'civic space'. In terms of public debate and freedom for civil organisations to work, no Commonwealth country is described as having ‘closed’ civic space, compared to 10% of countries world-wide. At the top end of the scale, only 9.6%% of the Commonwealth is described as ‘Open’ (Malta, New Zealand, Tuvalu, Cyprus and Barbados) compared to 13.5% of countries globally. This trend of being between closed and open is particularly apparent in Commonwealth Africa and Asia. Europe, Americas and the Pacific tend to be more open than the global average.
Unsurprisingly, the two indexes have much in common, implying a link between freedom of the press and the civic space within a country. New Zealand features well in both indexes, suggesting it leads the Commonwealth with a flourishing civil society and democratic culture. Rwanda, Swaziland, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon, and Uganda are all worryingly classed as both ‘bad’ and ‘repressed’ in the two indexes. While improvements in Pakistan, Rwanda and Swaziland’s press freedom scores should be noted, these countries clearly have a long way to go to live up to these key Commonwealth values.
The rankings combined suggest that at the top end of the scale, there is good practice to explore in how to open society to a democratic culture, and that there is a diverse range of countries leading the way. Commonwealth Summit hosts Malta, the UK and Malaysia have improvements to make on freedom of the press and civic space, though Malta’s leadership on bringing together local and global civil society at the 2015 Commonwealth Heads’ of Government Meeting is a positive and leading step in the right direction.
A number of Commonwealth organisations can support the upholding of civic space, from the Commonwealth Secretariat’s work supporting national human rights institutions to the Commonwealth Foundation’s work empowering civil society. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and the Commonwealth Journalists Association are some of the most avid defenders of civic space. As a civil society network of branches, affiliated organisations and individuals, The Royal Commonwealth Society itself has a deep interest in the openness of civic space and hopes that Commonwealth governments will work to strengthen civic space and embrace dynamic and innovative civil society as partners for democracy and development.